A wide-Open affair

Saturday, April 8, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There's no mistaking this place for Augusta National.

Azaleas are bursting with pink, white and purple blooms. The wind swirls down at Amen Corner, turning good shots into bogeys or worse, and Rae's Creek is as scary as ever.

Everything else about this Masters, however, is starting to resemble the U.S. Open.

Chad Campbell kept his mistakes to a minimum in Friday's second round, turning three straight birdies into a 5-under 67 and taking a three-shot lead over Vijay Singh, Fred Couples and Rocco Mediate.

"I don't think there's anything to celebrate yet," said Campbell, who was at 6-under 138. "I haven't really accomplished much yet. We're only halfway through."

Campbell's birdie run through the back nine was about the only thing resembling a charge that typically defines this major. Everyone else was hanging on, happy with par, trying to survive what is shaping up as the toughest test in golf.

Just like so many U.S. Opens, the goal was to keep the ball in play off the tee and go from there.

"You play away from flags here like you do at U.S. Opens," Ernie Els, who has won the Open twice, said after his second straight 71. "The only difference is the rough is not as high. Give that some time."

And as Els looked ahead to a weekend in which 15 players were within five shots of the lead -- including defending champion Tiger Woods -- he expected something else that reminds him of that other major held in June.

"You don't want to get too aggressive here at the moment, the way the golf course is playing," he said. "I can see a lot of backtracking over the weekend at some stages in this tournament."

For now, much depends on Campbell.

He is a prototype U.S. Open golfer who digs shots out of the dirt. The firm, crusty conditions over two days have shortened this beefy course and helped medium-length hitters like Campbell.

Campbell began his surge at Amen Corner, holing a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 12th that drew virtually no applause. He laid up on the par-5 13th and made a 10-foot birdie, then hit a 9-iron to a back pin on the 14th that stopped 6 feet away. His final birdie, a 15-foot putt that swirled into the hole, gave him a comfortable margin.

But as so many others learned, no lead is safe.

Singh birdied two of his first three holes and appeared to be in command until hitting two shots he thought were perfect. A 6-iron went over the fourth green and into the bushes, and a 7-iron went over the fifth green into a bunker. Singh made double bogey on both holes, and the gallery gasped as it watched him tumble down the leaderboard.

For good measure, Singh found Rae's Creek on the 13th for another double bogey. He wound up with a 74, bruised but not out of it.

"I don't think I've ever had back-to-back doubles for a long, long time," Singh said. "I'm happy that I hung in there. I didn't give up. I cannot win the tournament today. I just made sure I wasn't going to lose too many shots."

Fred Couples, who has never missed a cut at the Masters, was poised to join Campbell in the lead until his second shot in the par-5 15th came up short and rolled back into the water. He managed a 70, while Mediate ground out a 73.

Mediate has been struggling on the PGA Tour, but got into the Masters because he tied for sixth last year in the U.S. Open. Clearly, he likes this kind of golf.

"I hit a few good-looking shots that turned out horrible," Mediate said. "Just to be in this position to have a shot, that's all I can ask for. It's the ultimate examination, this golf course."

It proved plenty tough for Woods again, although he was very much in the picture. He made short work of the par 5s on the back nine, two-putting for birdie on both of them, but was disgusted by missing birdie putts of 8 feet on the 16th and 18th holes that could have brought him closer to the lead.

Instead, he was at 1-under 143 and in a group that included two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (73) and Ben Crenshaw, the two-time Masters champion who shot 72. At age 54, he's wondering when his improbable run is going to end.

"I'm in contention, so it's a good spot," Woods said.

The group at 2-under 142 included Els, Darren Clarke (70), Tim Clark of South Africa (72), David Howell of England (71) and former Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who kept his round together with clutch par saves, but failed to shoot up the leaderboard by missing putts after spectacular shots.

His best one might have been for bogey.

Mickelson posed over a 6-iron into the back right hole location on the 11th, only to feel the wind shift on his face -- switching from left to right -- enough to gently push his ball into the water. From behind the pond, he fired a long chip that stopped 6 feet from the hole and enabled him to escape with only a bogey.

He traded birdies and bogeys the rest of the way in his round of 72.

"I would not say it resembles the U.S. Open because the rough isn't rough -- it's first cut," Mickelson said, referring to the grass that grows just under two inches. "But the penalty for a missed tee shot on a number of holes now is U.S. Open-type penalties."

The leaderboard might be the best indicator.

Even with Campbell ahead by three shots, this Masters appears to be wide open with some of the strongest games in golf -- from Singh to Mickelson to Els to Woods to Goosen, all members of the so-called Big Five.

The only thing that could transfer Augusta National back to its old self is rain, and there is a chance for that Saturday.

"Unless we get rain to soften it up, if it's windy then 2 or 3 under might not win," Couples said.

Perhaps no one is more desperate to wear a green jacket than Els, who has been runner-up twice at Augusta National since 2000, and is still smarting from losing a duel to Mickelson two years ago. He closed with 67 in 2004; he was happy with 71-71 this year.

"I've just got to try and sneak something into the 60s over the weekend and see what happens," Els said. "At least I know you don't have to try and shoot 65 to win."

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